Today we realised how tyranny of distance played a great part in this conflict.
We left our hotel early and bade farewell to Graham, Mark and Kimberley. Our first stop was Belmont 60 kilometres to the south, where on 23 November 1899, the troop of New South Wales Lancers with Lord Methuen’s force became the first Australians in Australian uniform to be in combat. The troop was attached to the 9th Lancers, part of the advance guard of this force that embodied the cream of the British Army’s infantry.
As the scouts approached a feature known as ‘Table Mountain’ some two kilometres north west of Belmont railway station, they were fired upon by Boer riflemen secreted near the crest. Once the enemy had given away his position the Lancers withdrew pursued by Boers on horseback. The New South Wales Lancer troop was tasked with providing covering fire for their British comrades. This they did with great effect blunting the Boer pursuit, and enabling the British to dismount and take up positions in the rocky outcrops, giving time for Lord Methuen to deploy his infantry. The following British attack was not without casualties, 231 did not leave the field, but did achieve the aim of forcing a Boer withdrawal. The first of three such claimed successes against Boer screening forces until Magersfontein halted the British advance.
From our viewing position on a road just to the east of the railway line, we could clearly see the field of battle and were able to understand exactly where these first Australians fought.
I was also able to explain that 80 kilometres to the west of where we were standing on, on 1 January 1900, Private Victor Stanley Jones of the 1st Queensland Mounted Infantry on a rocky kopje not dis-similar to the ones we were looking at was the first Australian to die in combat. We had of course seen Private Jones’ name on the obelisk in the Kimberley cemetery.
We then proceeded south on the N11, paralleling the railway line where the first contingents from Australia had camped in late 1899 champing at the bit for action.
The hotel where we had a coffee stop in Hopetown reminded many of us of similar establishments in out of the way places in Australia. The staff, able to cheerfully deliver what was for them so much coffee in so little time deserve commendation. We were clearly not on a usual tourist route.
We then pushed on to Bristown for a fuel stop and experienced the wind and dust our soldiers complained of in 1899. The trip took a little longer than expected; South African road maintenance can slow progress.
Picnic lunch at a roadside stop was followed by a visit to De Aar, the rail junction and logistics centre our troops passed through on their way to the front. With little delay we were on the road again, stopping at the place where the railway north from Port Elizabeth passes through two kopjes near the rail siding of Arundel. Here Trooper Tom Morris of the New South Wales Lancers rescued his fellow Lancer Harrison from behind his dead horse whilst under withering Boer Mauser fire. For this action Tom Morris was recommended for a Victoria Cross, it was never awarded.
We then drove on through the fading light to our overnight stop at the Forever Resort, Gariep Dam.
Tomorrow we visit the cemetery, museum and battle sites at Colesburg before heading up the N1 250 kilometres to Bloemfontein.
Lieutenant Colonel John Howells